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An Attitude of Gratitude: Why Saying "I Am Grateful" Matters

Japanese traditions of kansha (gratitude) cultivate "quiet hope," a study finds.

When it comes to "aging well," a growing body of evidence suggests that optimism, gratitude, and positive self-perceptions of aging (SPA) may increase the odds of becoming one's "hoped-for future self."

For example, a recent study (Turner & Hooker, 2020) found that strongly identifying with a "hoped-for" future self (or a "feared" future self) may create a self-fulfilling prophecy that influences who we become as older adults. This Oregon State University research suggests that visualizing the person you want to be in old age (e.g., joyful and connected vs. bitter and isolated) could be predictive of who you become as a senior citizen.

Source: AnaliseArt/Pixabay

Another recently published paper, "An Attitude of Gratitude: Older Japanese in the Hopeful Present," by the University of Exeter's Iza Kavedžija, unearths some time-tested ways that cultural traditions of "believing things will 'somehow' (nantonaku) work out well" combined with the regular use of phrases such as arigatai ("I am grateful") and kansha helps older adults in Japan stay hopeful despite age-related challenges. Kansha means "gratitude," "thanks," or "appreciation" in Japanese.

This "attitude of gratitude" paper (Kavedžija, 2020) was published on December 14 in Anthropology and Aging. Kavedžija's ethnographic Japan-based research focused on a cohort of people (age 80 and above) residing in one of South Osaka's merchant neighborhoods called Shimoichi; these older adults remained hopeful, despite the challenges of aging.

Although these Japanese elders were in their 80s and 90s and had numerous concerns about the future, Kavedžija found that most cultivated what she calls "quiet hope" by sustaining a positive attitude rooted in kansha. "My argument is that gratitude as a mode of attunement offers the basis for what I have described as quiet hope," she explains. Kavedžija also found that this "attitude of gratitude entwines the reflection on the past with an attention to the present moment in its fullness."

Kavedžija's years of ethnographic fieldwork with older inhabitants of two Osakan communities are thoroughly detailed in a book, Making Meaningful Lives: Tales from an Aging Japan (2019).

In response to the research question "What makes for a meaningful life?" Kavedžija posits that the ancient Japanese concept of ikigai ("that which makes life worth living") holds many clues. Notably, the hopefulness that accompanies ikigai doesn't require anything extraordinary. "Quiet hope is cultivated through practice, through many small everyday acts," Kavedžija writes.

As an example, one of Kavedžija's gratitude-prone interviewees exclaimed, "The sun came out! It's so nice to walk. It is good to live in a place like this," as she headed toward a public park where local friends enthusiastically greeted one another by saying, "How good that you came!" (kite hurehatta) in their Osakan dialect.

"During the course of my fieldwork—in which I particularly focused on those who were able to lead a good life despite the challenges presented to them, those who were able to maintain a sense of well-being and craft a sense of meaning in life—I noticed they appeared to express gratitude readily," Kavedžija writes. "It may well be the case that their ability to emphasize gratitude as a positive orientation to the world allowed them a greater sense of well-being."

"Feeling thankful and grateful for the care and support they have had during their life helps pensioners in the country to be more optimistic, even when they experienced difficulties and were anxious about getting older," Kavedžija explained in a January 22 news release.

"An attitude of gratitude was embedded in older peoples' recollections of the past, but also allowed them to think about the present in a hopeful way," she added. "Gratitude in Japan can be seen to a large extent as a recognition of how much one relies on others as one moves through life. Gratitude highlights feelings of interdependence in the social world."

Her fieldwork also showed that when people told stories about traumatic or challenging experiences they'd previously endured, the first-person storytelling narrative often concluded with the phrase benkyou ni narimashita, which means "I have learned from this" or "it was educational." Framing adverse events as "learning experiences" you're ultimately grateful to have encountered is a resilience-boosting way to flip the script. (See, "Post-Traumatic Growth and Post-Traumatic Stress Can Coexist.")

Interestingly, Kavedžija found that the older adults she encountered during her fieldwork in Japan were reluctant to say "I'm happy" (even if they were in a good mood) but embraced saying "I am grateful" like a mantra. "They were reluctant to label themselves as happy, probably because, for their tastes, this would come too close to bragging," she writes. "They were even disinclined to use the word "satisfied" (manzoku). 'I would not go so far as to say I am satisfied,' many told me. And yet, expressions of gratitude abounded." She goes on to explain:

"This attitude of gratitude binds together both reflections on the past and attention to the present moment in its fullness. It also, I suggest, opens up space for a particular kind of hope, one grounded in the moment. Thus, the sense of a good and meaningful life that these elders conveyed encapsulates an attitude of gratitude as a way of inhabiting the present, rather than dwelling in the past or leaping toward the future."

Kavedžija also observed that many customary and habitual aspects of Japanese vernacular require speakers to acknowledge the bidirectional flow of actions, goods, and favors.

As she explains, "I could simply say that I volunteered in the community salon in Shimoichi, or I might—as polite Japanese language would encourage me to do—state that I was 'allowed to volunteer' (borantia sasete itadakimashita), that I was given a chance to do so, as it were." Kavedžija speculates that this type of phrasing "attunes the speaker to the role of others in our actions and de-emphasizes the sole agency of the individual."

"Through appreciation, dependence on others is not seen as simply a burden or a potential source of embarrassment, but also as moving and deeply meaningful," she concludes. "Meaningful relationships and encounters with others comprise a valuable foundation for what Japanese people call ikigai, or that which makes life worth living."


Iza Kavedžija. "An Attitude of Gratitude: Older Japanese in the Hopeful Present." Anthropology & Aging (First published: December 14, 2020) DOI: 10.5195/aa.2020.244

Shelbie G. Turner and Karen Hooker. "Are Thoughts About the Future Associated With Perceptions in the Present?: Optimism, Possible Selves, and Self-Perceptions of Aging." The International Journal of Aging and Human Development (First published online: December 28, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/0091415020981883